Cinderella is going to the Final Four, but so are three of her stepsisters.
Four conferences accounted for twenty-two of the thirty-four discretionary invitations to the NCAA men’s tournament, and three of them – the Big East, Big Ten, and ACC – will have representatives in the national semifinals: West Virginia, Michigan State, and Duke. The Butler Bulldogs of the Horizon League kept it from being four-for-four by beating the Big Twelve’s Kansas State on Saturday.
Butler will be the sentimental favorite, and can expect a large and vocal following in Lucas Oil Stadium, just seven miles from its Indianapolis campus. The team carries the banner of the so-called mid-majors, an NCAA phrase meaning, “You’d better win your conference tournament or at least 25 games if you wanna go to the dance.” The Bulldogs entered the NCAAs on a twenty-game winning streak, but were only a five-seed thanks to that traditional bugaboo of the mid-majors, a low-ranking strength of schedule. (They played four games against ranked opponents in the regular season, losing three and beating only Ohio State, which was playing its first game without Evan Turner.)
They beat Kansas State and Syracuse by getting and hitting open shots through classic team basketball, setting picks, moving without the ball, finding and creating openings rather than relying on individual athleticism. Their five starters are averaging nearly thirty-three minutes a game in the tournament, and will have to avoid foul trouble if they’re going to get by resurgent Michigan State.
Tom Izzo has the Spartans in the Final Four for the sixth time in the last twelve seasons. He lost two starters from last year’s team that made it to the final, saw his starting point guard and leading scorer Kalin Lucas rupture his Achilles tendon in the second-round win against Maryland, and has two other starters battling injuries. Sophomore Draymond Green came off the bench to score 13 points, contributing to the balanced scoring that got MSU past Tennessee in the regional final.
There were some testy moments on the Spartans bench. “You know, towards the beginning of the game,” Green said afterwards, “Coach – everything I did wrong he yelled at me. And I looked at him like, am I allowed to make a mistake?”
Izzo interrupted: “And I said, ‘Not at this time of year.’”
“That’s exactly what he said,” Green went on. “Not at this time of year; there’s no time for mistakes. And when he said that, I went back at him. And he stopped looking at me. Stopped talking to me…. I kept yelling. He didn’t pay me no more attention.
“Once we got in the huddle, I told him that’s my fault and you know how our relationship is…Once it’s all said and done, we know we’re on the same page going for the same goal. Once we did that, everything started clicking.”
The oddest of the four regional finals was the game played between West Virginia and Kentucky. The Mountaineers missed all fifteen of their two-point attempts from the floor in the first half, but had a lead at the break thanks to eight three-pointers, five in a row in one stretch that put them ahead to stay. Kentucky showed its youth, unable to cope with West Virginia’s 1-3-1 zone; the Wildcats kept shooting over it and missing threes, going thirty-six minutes into the game before hitting their first. They wound up 4-of-32 from behind the arc, and the matchup between the two best teams still in the tournament – possibly the two best entering the tournament – ended as a seven-point victory for the Big East champs.
WVU’s first Final Four appearance in half a century will come against Duke, who got there for the first time in six years but Mike Krzyzewski’s tenth overall. The Blue Devils were the top seed in the South after winning the ACC in what many felt was a down year for the conference. Duke’s big three of Scheyer, Singler, and Smith work the inside-outside game beautifully, getting the ball inside and kicking it back to three-point shooters if the defense collapses. Duke is an anomaly in the modern college game, starting three seniors and two juniors. That experience, and a week to practice, will be a huge help in coping with the Mountaineers’ zone.
It’s tempting to look at this year’s wide-open tournament and draw conclusions about increased parity in the age of one-and-done freshmen heading to the NBA. Before making that leap, remember that the three most recent Final Fours consisted of nine #1 seeds, two 2s and a 3. This year’s final will feature a five-seed against a one or two; Butler and Michigan State, both 5s, are trying to become the lowest seed to win since Danny Manning’s Kansas team in 1988. It’s a nice story, but the more important truth is that the rich continue to get richer. It’s still the big boys’ game, even if they let one of the little kids come over to play once in a while.